Craven Falls, Ohio, is a small town with twenty-eight hundred residents—a town where everyone knows almost everyone else and where nothing ever happens, until one day two children disappear.
Ashley Teodora spends her days juggling work, school, and her five-year-old daughter, Lily. She receives a phone call from her best friend, Carla Michaels, needing her to go to Illinois to help Carla who is going through a tough time in her life. When Ashley returns home, she receives horrifying news that turns her world upside down; her precious Lily has been abducted!
Reece Garran is released from prison after a five-year sentence. His primary goal is to find the woman whose memory kept him alive all those years while behind bars. This woman had captured his heart and wouldn’t let go. When the transport bus pulls into the town of Craven Falls, Reece thinks it’s just another small ordinary town until he finds a reason to stay.
Catherine Teodora, Ashley’s mother, loves crocheting, baking, gardening, and spending time with her granddaughter, Lily. On a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon, Catherine’s world is torn to pieces. All she did was look away for a split-second, and Lily was gone!
A family pulls together in a time of need, but what happens when those that are close to you are hiding behind twisted secrets? Will they stand by one another and find Lily? Or will the secrets tear this family apart?
For months, Tate had done nothing but watch, plan, and learn everything about Ashley. She was beautiful, but that didn’t do a woman justice, not in the world we lived in today. Beauty was just the half of it.
He watched Ashley wake in the morning. She didn’t know that he could see everything she did. Like when she made her coffee, adding cream and two sugars; then stirred, and tapping the spoon twice before setting it down on the red ceramic spoon-holder next to the coffeepot.
The way she gathered her blonde hair and twisted it into a bun on the top of her head before she crawled under the covers at night to read for exactly one-half-hour before placing the book down on the nightstand and clicking off the light.
Ashley repeated this routine every day—from the moment she woke in the morning to the time she picked up her daughter Lily from her mother’s place three miles down the road every evening. Although, on occasion, there were nights she didn’t come home. That was when she’d sleep over at her boyfriend’s house and her sweet little daughter stayed with her grandma.
Tate had on several occasions camped out and watched the grandmother who lived by herself in a two-story house surrounded by woods. Those woods made it an easy place to hide and watch the grandmother.
The grandma’s house was much easier than Ashley’s place to watch because Ashley lived in an apartment. There was no place to really hide so that was when he rented the apartment across the parking lot from her. It gave him a direct view into her home.
The grandma had been a grieving widow for some time. At least that’s what he’d gathered since Tate had never seen a man at her place. He watched her from time to time, but not as often as he followed Ashley around because she was who intrigued him the most.
The child, Lily, was almost a spitting image of Ashley, except for one thing; her long-wavy black hair, which Tate assumed, came from her father’s side of the family. He’d never seen the little girl’s father to know if she looked anything like him. The little girl’s father wasn’t in the picture. He hadn’t been for as long as Tate had been watching them. Tate hadn’t any clue where the sperm donor went or what happened to him—to them. Did they have a fight? Or did he just ditch her the moment he found out Ashley was pregnant with his baby? That would be something only God knew.
It was sad to see Ashley raise this child alone, but that would change in time. She would come to see that Tate was good for her. It would only take a little push in the right direction, and Tate knew just what to do to get her to see what love was. Show Ashley how wonderful and true it could be.
Ashley’s so-called boyfriend wasn’t who she thought he was. He wasn’t true to her. He didn’t love her the way a man should love a woman, especially someone as beautiful and smart as her—like Ashley. Her name sounded so sweet rolling off his tongue every time he said it.
As for the little girl, Lily, she would learn to love him and worship him. She would never be without a father again. A man who would give her everything she would ever need—want, but that would all come soon enough. Soon they would know all about him. Soon Ashley would be with him.
Because after today the cat would come out to play…
Ashley Teodora drove until she reached the state line, entering Indiana. Night was beginning to fall when she stopped at the first rest stop.
She was driving back to Illinois where she’d been just two weeks earlier to see her best friend Carla and her newborn baby Mya. Carla’s friend Veronica had called yesterday telling Ashley there’d been an accident and that she needed to come back to Illinois.
Ashley had met Carla when they were six years old and had been best friends ever since. Ashley still lived in Ohio where they grew up, but Carla left after graduation and went to college in Tallahassee, Florida, where she’d met her husband Tim. After they finished college, Carla and Tim were married and moved to Tim’s hometown in Homer Glen, Illinois.
Even though life at times got busy, Ashley and Carla still made time to keep in touch. Even though it had been weeks since they’d talked. Carla was never far from Ashley’s mind, especially since her recent visit a couple of weeks before when Carla had told her about what happened a year ago.
Ashley went inside the rest stop, used the restroom, grabbed something small to eat, and got back in her dark blue SUV. She pulled up to the pumps, filled her gas tank, and then merged back onto Interstate 80/90.
She watched for signs showing lodging and took the next exit. On her last trip, she’d stayed at a motel that was now under an investigation because there had been some dead bodies found buried behind the motel. She was praying this one was different.
She drove down the road until she saw the lit-up sign MOTEL. There weren’t many cars in the lot, only two if you counted hers. She pulled in and parked by the front office.
The sign on the door stated that there was Vacancy available and by the look of the place, she could see why.
She glanced out the windshield, giving the run-down motel a-once-over-look. The place definitely needed a new coat of paint. The doors and windows of each room were dirty and grimy.
She sat and wondered if she should find another motel to stay for the night. She was beyond exhausted and didn’t have a lot of money to afford a room at the Hampton; this place would have to do. She’d take her chances the rooms here were clean enough to sleep in, and that there weren’t any dead bodies buried behind the motel. She chuckled a laugh, not that it was funny. People had been killed and buried. No, it definitely wasn’t funny at all, if anything she was laughing at herself for thinking that this motel was just like the last one. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the things that scare you the most.
She grabbed her purse from the passenger seat and got out of the car. The gravel crunched under her feet as she walked to the office door. She turned the knob, but the door wouldn’t budge. She threw back her hip and bumped the door, pushing it at the same time. The door swung open, she stumbled forward, but caught herself by grabbing the counter in front of her.
After regaining her composure, she looked around the cluttered, dingy room, but saw no one. She cleared her throat loud enough for someone to hear her; still, no one came.
A bell sat to the right of her with a note stating: ring for service. She tapped her pointer finger down twice on the metal bell. The noise echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls where no pictures or decorations were hung.
A voice from the backroom called out, “I’ll be right there.”
“Okay, thank you,” Ashley replied.
A door to the backroom opened and a short, rounded woman with shaggy white hair that could hide a bird’s nest came tromping down the narrow hall; her plump butt swaying side to side.
“How can I help ya’ this evening?” the woman spoke with a southern twang.
“I would like to get a room for the night.”
“Well, ya’ come to the right place,” the woman chuckled. “I got no guests here, so ya’ got your pick-ins of the place.”
Pick-ins, Ashley thought. What kind of place had she stopped at? “Your best room will be fine.” Best room? Where did she think she was at, a Hilton resort or something? Ashley almost laughed in spite of herself and the exhaustion that had brought her here.
“Well, let me see. Oh yes, I’ll give you room eight. Will that do for ya’?”
“That’ll be fine, thank you. Oh, do you have hot water?” She hoped she didn’t sound rude.
“Hot water?” the woman snarled at Ashley. “Course there’s hot water. What do ya’ think this place is, an outhouse?” The woman’s eyes narrowed in on Ashley’s face, looking perturbed.
Well, it certainly looked like one, hoping she wasn’t speaking out loud. “How much for the night?” Ashley changed the subject.
“That’ll be forty-five dollars cash, and there ain’t no refunds,” the woman quickly added.
Ashley pulled out her wallet and counted her cash.
“Sign ya’ name here for me and I’ll get the key.”
Ashley had seen too many horror movies and wondered if she should use a fake name. Not saying this woman was a killer or anything, but it’d probably be best if she stayed clear of her and locked the door once she was in her room. The woman made her feel uneasy; hell, the whole place reminded her of Bate’s Motel. Where was Norman, she thought, almost chuckling? Ashley scribbled her name down before the white-haired woman returned.
The woman came back and held out a key attached to a long piece of wood. “Here ya’ go. Just leave it in the box out front if ya’ decide to leave before eight in the morning. I don’t get up at no crack of dawn, and there ain’t any room service here so you’ll have to fend for yourself.”
“That’s fine,” Ashley replied as she snatched the key and went out the door.
She hustled to her car, grabbed her bag, and hit the lock button. She looked around and spotted the room. An eerie feeling came over Ashley as if someone were watching her and she quickly bolted to her room. She stuck the key in the deadbolt, opened the door, and slammed it shut behind her. She turned, locked the door, and fastened the chain.
She leaned her forehead on the door as her heart was pulsating through her chest; she took in long shallow breaths to calm herself. She turned back around and flicked on the light switch on the wall beside her and placed her bag on the only chair in the room. As she walked further into the room, she had to pinch her nose and breathe through her mouth. There was a stench in the room, almost like a dead animal smell.
She walked to the bathroom and cracked open the window, and then decided she should probably open the window by the door as well to let the air circulate, but only a crack because the owner of this place freaked her out.
She gazed around the room, looking at the furniture and wallpaper. The place looked like it had never left the sixties or seventies with its avocado green chair, and what was that—pot leaves on the wallpaper?
She strolled back to the bed, pulled the comforter off, and shook it out. She didn’t see any bed bugs, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Were bed bugs even something you could see with the naked eye? she asked herself. She grabbed her bag and headed into the bathroom to shower and change.
Fifteen minutes later, she stood in front of the mirror, wiping away the film that was left by the steam, and then brushed her hair and teeth. When she finished, she went back to the bed and switched on the television.
After flicking through the channels of nothing but static, she settled on the only channel that came in clear enough for her to watch. Not that she was interested in watching television; it was more for white noise if anything.
She took the comforter and folded it in half like a sleeping bag. She collected her cell phone from her purse, and then climbed between the blankets. She called and talked to her mom Catherine, hoping she could catch Lily before she went to bed.
Lily Rose was her five-year-old daughter. Occasionally, her mind would flash back to the father of her daughter. This was one of those times. She wanted to hate him for what he’d done to her, but it was as much her fault as it was his. If she’d known that she would get pregnant after one night of hot steamy sex, she would’ve taken precautions. But the truth was, he didn’t even know she had gotten pregnant. In fact, she hadn’t seen him since that night almost six years ago.
They hadn’t talked about what they wanted to do with their lives. It wasn’t that kind of relationship. It wasn’t even a relationship—period! They had bumped into each other at a party and the next thing she knew, they were back at her friend’s place, who thankfully was still at the party, pulling off each other’s clothes.
After that evening, she hadn’t realized how much sex two people could have and the fact that each time he aimed to please. Oh boy, did he please her. She hadn’t had an orgasm like that with another guy since. When she woke the next morning, he was gone. No name, no phone number. It was as if he’d vanished into thin air.
Now, Ashley had spent the last five years raising Lily Rose by herself; well, not exactly by herself, she had her mom’s help when she was at work or school.
Ashley took college courses online and attended a couple classes at a college outside of town, studying to be an Architect just like her father had been—God rest his soul.
When she thought about Lily’s father, as she so often did, and if he’d kept in contact with them; she would unquestionably consider a relationship with him. But, he didn’t even know that Lily Rose existed, and Ashley didn’t know anything about him. Maybe, he was married with other children?
When Ashley finished the call with her mom, she noticed there was a voicemail and tapped the green icon. After listening to the message from Rob, her ex-fiancé, who seemed to only have called to make sure she was all right and that he wanted to talk about why she had ended it with him.
She had met Rob two years ago in college. She had gone to a frat party, but only after her friends had persuaded her to go. She didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, not that Lily was a mistake. She was far from a mistake.
Once at the frat party, her friends had introduced her and Rob, and one thing led to another. But, after what she’d witnessed two weeks ago, there was by all odds not going to be a wedding; not now—not ever!
Maybe she wasn’t the marrying type. It happened to some people. There was nothing wrong with staying single, but there were times when she thought too much about getting married, and the whole thing made her sick to her stomach.
She’d been dodging him ever since she’d gotten back from seeing Carla a couple of weeks ago. “Whatever,” she mumbled and deleted his message. “Is he nuts or something? Does he really think I’ll forgive him and things will just go back to the way they were? No chance in hell that’s ever going to happen,” she said into the empty room.
She flicked the switch on her phone to vibrate, set it on the nightstand, turned the volume on the TV down low, and closed her eyes.
Ashley sprang to a sitting position, her eyes searching the room. The TV had gone black. She reached for her phone and touched the power button to give her some light. Another sound came from the direction of the bathroom, like a hammer hitting a nail.
Clank, Clank, Clank.
She tapped the flashlight icon and aimed the light towards the sound. Stepping out from under the blankets, she made her way to the bathroom. She shined the light from the floor to the ceiling and from left to right; there was nothing in the room. It wasn’t like there were places to hide in a room that only had a tub, toilet, and sink.
She flicked the switch on the wall, not knowing why she didn’t turn the light on in the first place, and still saw nothing. The sound stopped the moment she flipped the switch. No one had to twist her arm for her to know she needed to keep it on.
She walked back to the bed and sat down. She checked the time on her phone, 3:42 a.m. She clicked the TV off and reached her hand inside her purse, pulling out a book. She was wide awake now; no sense in trying to go back to sleep, and it was too early to leave—still dark outside.
She tried to read, but the crackling of branches outside the bathroom window consumed her attention. She kept tossing around the idea whether she should stay or leave. When she heard the sound of something pawing at the ground, she hurried off the bed, threw on her clothes, and peeked out the window towards the parking lot.
The thought of the article she read weeks ago came flooding back to her. Could this be happening again? Could this be a coincidence or maybe even be related somehow? She didn’t want to know, but also didn’t want to stay and find out; and possibly getting herself killed in the process.
When she looked out the window to the parking lot, she saw nothing but darkness lurking outside her door. She grabbed her things and threw open the door. Ashley pressed the unlock button on her key ring and ran like mad to her vehicle. Once inside she touched the door panel, waiting for the clunk sound to indicate the doors were locked.
“Shit,” she mumbled, remembering that she had left the motel key in the room. There was no way she was going back for it and started the vehicle.
She shifted into reverse. Gravel spit from the rear tires as she slammed her foot down on the gas pedal. She whipped the SUV around, slammed the gear into drive, and raced down the road.
She made a right turn and got back on the Interstate. She’d arrive earlier than she planned, but at this moment, she really didn’t give a shit.
Reece Garran sat on the edge of the 3-inch thick cot, pulling the T-shirt over his head; his biceps nearly ripping the fabric around his arms. He’d put on more muscle since his time in prison, filling out the shirt that was once loose. He couldn’t believe how nice it felt to be in street clothes again. He looked over at the orange jumpsuit now sitting in a ball near the foot of the bed. Yeah, he wasn’t going to miss that God-awful thing.
He stood when the guard unlocked the door to the cell and walked through the opening. He didn’t look back over his shoulder to see if he’d forgotten anything. He had nothing to leave behind; nothing to forget. He held the only thing that meant something to him in his hand.
The single thought made him wrap his fingers around the spine of the book. The guards allowed him to take it with him. “Consider it a gift. Something to remember us by,” one of the guards had said as he howled with laughter. It wouldn’t be them he’d be thinking about.
He had read The Shawshank Redemption more times than he could count. It was one of his favorite books. In fact, his father had given Reece a copy as a birthday gift a longtime ago.
He’d thought of his father all the time since he’d died on that unforgettable fall day. The fire had started in his parents’ bedroom and by the time Reece could get the door open, the room had gone up in flames. Reece could still see his father lying on the bed, his screams filling the air around him. The firemen said there was nothing he could’ve done to save him; it was too late.
Reece had stood outside on the street and watched like everyone else as the house burned down to the ground. Everything he had ever owned was gone. His mother had died when he was four from cancer, leaving his father to raise him on his own. His father had never remarried, saying he could never love another woman the way he loved Reece’s mother.
When Reece had turned nineteen, he joined the Marines just one week later. He fought in Afghanistan during the War on Terrorism and left after serving eight years for his country, learning things that he could only use in the military. Things that the government didn’t want anyone else to know about. After leaving the military, he traveled around and did odd jobs wherever he could find them before ending up in prison where he’d spent the last five years of his life.
It had been five years since he’d been outside these concrete walls. That didn’t include the two hours each day they allowed the prisoners out for yard time, as they called it here, but anything was better than sitting inside the 6x9-foot cell, day in and day out.
He had been looking forward to this day, finally getting out of this hellhole he didn’t belong in. As far back as he could remember he just always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d left the last town he was in and was arrested four months later for almost killing a man. The judge gave him five years with no parole in the Lancaster Correctional Center in Lancaster, Ohio.
He didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend that he had left behind. The last woman he was with was before he ended up in this place—most would call it a one-night stand, but she was more than that to him. There was just something about her that grabbed ahold of his heart and wouldn’t let go. She’d been on his mind every minute of every day. This woman didn’t know it, but she was the only thing that had kept him going. He was going to find her if it was the last thing he did. He had to find out if she felt the same.
He walked down the corridor with one correctional officer in front of him and one behind him, both armed with Taser guns that would shoot a bolt of electricity through your body faster than you could tip over a cow.
Although he’d read it was against the law to use a Taser gun on inmates, it was at times used as a precaution while transporting a prisoner from their cell to the outside world. Just in case they got the idea in their head to run, but his six-foot-three-inch muscular build intimated most people more than anything.
He passed the other inmates shouting their obscenities as he walked slowly by. He hadn’t flinched or cared really what they were saying. He was getting out of this place and they had years left behind bars.
A buzzer sounded, echoing around him; then, the door clicked open. They walked through the opening and the door shut behind them. He retrieved the items that had been taken from him when he came to this place—a Rolex watch and a small black velvet box. He slipped the watch on his arm and slid the box in his pants pocket.
After gathering his things, he went through three more doors before the last door slid open and sunlight pierced his eyes, blinding Reece until he shielded his eyes with his hand. He was finally outside. Finally leaving the place that had consumed his world all these years.
He ran a hand through his shoulder-length black hair, and walked straight to the vehicle that would get him out of this God-forsaken place.
A small off-green bus sat idling outside the gate entrance, waiting for him to climb aboard. Waiting to take him to the bus stop where he could catch a ride to wherever he wanted to go.
The ride into town went faster than he thought it would. Thoughts occupied his time and before he knew it, the bus pulled up to the depot and opened its doors. Three other people besides him got off the bus.
He stepped off the last step and made his way down the sidewalk. He saw a sign across the street that said, Welcome to Craven Falls, Population 2,800. That was more than he thought there’d be when the bus drove through town, just moments ago.
He spotted a café and his mouth began to water. It had been a long time since he had a home cooked meal. Anything was better than the prison food they’d fed him.
A bell jingled above the door as he pushed it open. Reece looked around the restaurant and saw several empty seats at the counter. He sat down, placing his book on the counter and waited for the waitress to acknowledge him.
“How can I help you today?” a dainty brown-haired woman asked.
He could tell she was a local and probably had lived here her whole life. “I’ll have a cup of coffee and a menu, please,” Reece replied.
The waitress reached under the counter in front of her and handed him a menu. “I’ll go get your coffee while you look it over,” the brown-haired woman said.
He had noticed that she was pretty, but he wasn’t here for that. In fact, he hadn’t thought of anyone except for the last woman he’d been with. He had no clue where she lived, only her name. The way she had looked at him was never far from his mind. He couldn’t get that smile, that face, out of his head.
The server set his coffee in front of him, and he gave her his order of three eggs over easy with a side of bacon, wheat toast, and four buttermilk pancakes.
The bell rang behind him, and he looked over his shoulder. A white male, maybe a few years younger than him, walked in wearing an Army uniform. The man eyeballed the place and then headed to a seat near the back.
Reece shouldn’t care what this guy was doing. He should mind his own business, but there was something odd about him that just gave Reece a red flag. He didn’t need to get involved or attract any attention to himself. He was not going back to prison.
Reece turned back around just as his food arrived. He inhaled the scent and started eating. When the clacking of dishes in the kitchen stopped, he could have sworn he heard the man in the booth talking to himself. No, not talking, more like arguing with himself.
A few minutes later, the guy in the Army uniform stood, walked outside, and got into a black convertible. Reece watched as the car drove away, but not until after he saw the two white men kiss. Not that he hadn’t seen two men kiss before. Hell, he’d seen it his whole time in prison. To each his own, he thought, to each his own, and went back to eating his breakfast.